ON AMBIVALENCE, guest author Mary Gaitskill

I was moved to be staying at the Norman Mailer house because of what he meant to me early in life, by which I don’t mean to say that I was a Mailer fan early on; in fact I was not. My response to him was in a way deeper than simple admiration or enjoyment. He was perhaps the first author, certainly the first socially engaged author who made me aware of my own ambivalence, and, by extention, the ambivalent nature of truth. The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote about Norman Mailer which was published in A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, and published by Harvard Press:

I first encountered Mailer at the age of 15 when I read Kate Millet’s feminist polemic Sexual Politics. In a special sexism-in-literature section, Millet quoted at length from Mailer’s novel An American Dream, a luscious comic-book story of society, magic, music, murder, love and sodomy which in Millet’s censorious context seemed even more thrillingly dirty than it actually is. At fifteen I had a complex streak of practicality which was both cheerful and dour, and which allowed me to retreat into my private cave to thoroughly enjoy Mailer’s fantasy as presented by Millet, only to momentarily emerge full of righteous outrage at it; I saw nothing questionable about this.

When I heard that Mailer would be appearing on The Dick Cavett Show to discuss feminism with Gore Vidal, I watched, anticipating a full complement of outrage and enjoyment. To my surprise, I was surprised: watching Gore Vidal was like watching a snake in a suit, all piety and fine manners, standing up on its hind tail to recite against the evils of sexism. Before this fancy creature, Mailer was nearly helpless, lunging and swiping like a bear trying to fight a snake on the snake’s terms. At one point he spluttered “You know very well I’m the gentlest person here,” which made the audience laugh while Cavett and guests made ironic faces—but (horribly enough) I sensed that this was quite possibly true, even if Mailer did head-butt Vidal in the dressing room, even if yes, he did stab his wife in the dim past of a drunken party. For a gentle person who has been stung by clever, socially armored people adept at emotional cruelty may respond with oafish brutality; it is precisely because he is gentle that he can’t modulate his rage or disguise it the way a naturally cruel person can. I watched the bear-baiting spectacle with a painful sense of cognitive dissonance dawning in me, both sides of my peculiarly American schizophrenic self finally present and blinking confusedly. The only other person who had aroused such feelings in me before was Lyndon Johnson, whose ugly, profound, helplessly emotional face had made me feel like crying for reasons I could not understand….

Such “cognitive dissonance” is for me a precursor to union and watching Norman Mailer at that moment was more powerful for me than watching/hearing any number of people I might more naturally have agreed with at the time. That experience deepened as I read his work later in life. It was of great value to me and I am honored to stay at his house.

Mary Gaitskill is an author of fiction. Read her full bio on our Visitors and Guest Speakers page.

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What is this. What has happened to me.

In workshop with Meena Alexander last week, our prompt was to write about nature. I chose the sky; arguably the cleanest, safest, most ubiquitous aspect of nature, but nonetheless breathtaking. Today I lay out in the sun at Herring Cove Beach thinking about that choice while watching the clouds – every kind, from light grayish smudge at the horizon to bright white question mark shifting into an airy exclamation right in the middle of my blue field of vision. I really do mourn my relative disconnection from nature – something I truly didn’t realize I’d been missing.

I grew up in Los Angeles, but loved nature as a child. I remember a field trip to someplace north of the city where I knelt happily in shallow, grassy pools with a magnifying glass, looking for tadpoles. I remember mud fights with my sisters in the rain. I remember planting watermelon seeds in the front yard, how the dirt coated my fingers, burrowing richly beneath my chewed-down nails. I touched pill bugs, pet lost animals, collected autumn leaves and taped the stems to notebook paper, arranged by color and shape. And I loved the beach, the squish of wet sand and the salt on my skin.

What happened to me? Motherhood? Allergies? The Great Recession? Now all I can think about is how much it costs to get there, make sure we have enough to eat, be entertained, get back home, and then the sand I have to sweep up afterward, the sopping wet clothes to launder before they start to mildew, the inevitable scrapes or bites to attend. “Communing with nature” has thus turned into a chore and even a luxury over the years; being in Provincetown has thrown that new insight sharply into relief, and I would lose a tremendous opportunity if I let it go without scrutiny.

When we left Herring Cove today, I obeyed the impulse to fill a paper cup with a dozen marvelous beach rocks that I’ve placed near my “writing spot” in the condo. And, yes, I will cart them back to the city with me, not as souvenirs but as a reminder of how a question mark can transform into a quiet exclamation.

Khadijah Queen is the mother of an 11-year-old Bey Blader and Pokémon Trainer. She tries to keep up with the powers and levels and “evolutions” of the characters, if only so she can understand what on the great earth her son and his friends talk about. Read Khadijah’s work in Esque and visit her website. Her second book Black Peculiar, winner of the Noemi Press book award, is forthcoming this fall. Her poems, three times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, appear widely in journals and anthologies, including The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 and the current issue of jubilat.

Khadijah is also a Mailer Poetry Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on her third book, which deals with her experience in the Navy and concomitant struggle with fibromyalgia.